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“It is a big spider web of things”: sensory experiences of autistic adults in public spaces

MacLennan, K., Woolley, C., @21andsensory, E., Heasman, B., Starns, J., George, B. and Manning, C. ORCID: (2022) “It is a big spider web of things”: sensory experiences of autistic adults in public spaces. Autism in Adulthood. ISSN 2573-9581

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To link to this item DOI: 10.1089/aut.2022.0024


Background: Sensory processing differences are commonly experienced by autistic individuals, and some sensory experiences can greatly impact the mental health and quality of life of individuals. Previous research suggests that adapting the sensory nature of environments may improve individual experiences and engagement with these spaces. However, knowledge about which public places are particularly disabling is limited, especially from the perspective of autistic individuals. Little is also known about what in the sensory environment makes them particularly disabling. Method: In this participatory research study, we investigated the sensory experiences of autistic adults in public spaces. We used an online focus group method, recruiting 24 autistic adults across 7 focus groups. We applied content analysis, reflexive thematic analysis, and case study analysis. Results: The results of the content analysis showed that supermarkets, eateries (i.e., restaurants, cafés, pubs), highstreets and city/town centres, public transport, healthcare settings (i.e., doctor’s surgeries and hospitals), and retail shops and shopping centres, are experienced to be commonly disabling sensory environments for autistic adults. Whereas, outdoor spaces, retail shops, museums, concert venues/clubs, cinemas/theatres, and stadiums were identified to be commonly less disabling sensory environments. Additionally, through reflexive thematic analysis we identified 6 key principles that underlie how disabling or enabling sensory environments are: Sensoryscape (sensory environment), Space, Predictability, Understanding, Adjustments, and Recovery. We represented these principles as a web to emphasise the interconnected, dimensional spectrum of the different themes. Lastly, we used case study analysis to evidence these principles in the commonly disabling sensory environments for richer detail and context and to provide credibility for the principles. Conclusions: Our findings have important implications for businesses, policy, and built environment designers to reduce the sensory impact of public places to make them more enabling for autistic people. By making public spaces more enabling, we may be able to improve quality of life for autistic individuals.

Item Type:Article
Divisions:Interdisciplinary centres and themes > ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorders) Research Network
Life Sciences > School of Psychology and Clinical Language Sciences > Department of Psychology
ID Code:111401
Publisher:Mary Ann Liebert


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